An Introduction to the Brooklyn Bridge for Junior Engineers

Do you know any young people who are fascinated with bridges? These amazing structures are not only functional but can be very beautiful. Whether they span streams, rivers or gorges, bridges make connections and help us cross over obstacles. One of the most impressive bridges ever built is the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. The fascinating story of this bridge’s construction will inform and may even inspire your young engineer.

Built over 132 years ago, the Brooklyn Bridge spans the East River, linking Manhattan with Brooklyn. Prior to the bridge opening, the only way to cross the East River was by boat, which could be extremely treacherous - especially in bad weather! An experienced bridge engineer named John Roebling proposed building a suspension bridge across the river. A suspension bridge uses thick cables to hang the roadway between support towers. One advantage of a suspension bridge is that the support towers can be placed far apart which keeps the river open to boat traffic. John Roebling received the commission to build the bridge in 1869; however, due to an unfortunate accident, he died before construction began. His son Washington Roebling took over as Chief Engineer and, using the design and general specifications drafted by his father, completed the project.

Building the Brooklyn Bridge was an extremely challenging task that took years to complete. One engineering challenge was building the foundations for the two support towers. Two caissons (watertight chambers that allow workers to access the river bottom) were built and placed in the river, one for each tower. At the time, no machines were big enough to do the job, and the foundations had to be dug by hand until bedrock was reached. The stone towers were gradually built on top of the caissons and the increasing weight of the towers pushed the caissons further into the riverbed.

Working inside the caissons was not only difficult, because it was dark, dirty and hot, but it was also quite dangerous. As the digging went deeper and deeper, many workers began to suffer from decompression sickness (also known as caisson disease). In fact, Washington Roebling, who made frequent visits inside the caissons, suffered from the illness. After many attacks he became paralyzed and bedridden. Unable to visit the site again, his wife Emily became his assistant and was instrumental in the completion of the project.

After 14 years and many hardships the bridge opened to the public on May 24, 1883. At the time of its opening, the Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge ever built. Over the years, this suspension bridge has made it possible for pedestrians, bicyclists, horses and carts, cars, trolley cars, trains and even elephants to travel between Manhattan and Brooklyn. If you want to plan a fantastic day trip for your family, take a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and then stop to play at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Both children and adults will be amazed by this incredible structure.

To learn more about the Brooklyn Bridge as well as other famous bridges, try these resources:

Brooklyn Bridge Books
Brooklyn Bridge by Lynn Curlee.
Describes the planning, construction, and history of the Brooklyn Bridge, celebrated as one of the greatest landmarks and grandest sights of New York City.

The Brooklyn Bridge: A Wonders of the World Book by Elizabeth Mann.
Describes the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, from its conception by John Roebling in 1852 through, after many setbacks, its final completion under the direction of his son, Washington, in 1883.

Twenty-one Elephants and Still Standing by April Jones Prince.
Upon completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, P.T. Barnum and his twenty-one elephants parade across to prove to everyone that the bridge is safe.

More Brooklyn Bridge Titles
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You Wouldn't Want to Work on the Brooklyn Bridge! : An Enormous Project That Seemed Impossible by Thomas Ratliff.

Built to Last: Building America’s Amazing Bridges, Dams, Tunnels and Skyscrapers by George Sullivan.
Americans did not let mountains stand in the way of trade with the American West--they tunneled right through them to make the Cascade Tunnel and Hoosac Tunnel. When water and power were needed, they built huge dams, such as the Fort Peck Dam and the Hoover Dam. Faced with water to cross, they built beautiful bridges, such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. And the American character is best reflected by the building it invented, the skyscraper. Built to last profiles 17 architectural and engineering marvels, from the Erie Canal to Boston's Big Dig.

Bridges: From My Side to Yours by Jan Adkins.
A look at bridges throughout history, from simple arrangements of stepping stones, to famous landmarks such as London Bridge, to marvels of engineering such as New York's Brooklyn Bridge.

Building a Bridge
Building a Bridge by JoAnn Early Macken.
Simple text and photographs present the construction of a bridge, including information on the workers and equipment needed.

Bridges Are to Cross by Philemon Sturges.
Discusses different kinds of bridges, from train bridges to fortified castle bridges, and provides an example of each.

Fabulous Bridges by Ian Graham.
Describes some of the longest and most famous bridges ever built. Includes information on the bridge designers, the challenges they faced, and statistics of the finished bridges.

Amazing Bridges
Extreme Bridges by Ann O. Squire.
Discusses various types of bridges that can be found all over the world

The World's Most Amazing Bridges by Michael Hurley.
What is the longest bridge in South America? When did the Golden Gate Bridge open? Could a bridge ever connect Russia and Alaska? To find out the answers to these questions and more, open this book and go on an exploration of the world's most amazing bridges!

The Longest Bridges by Susan K. Mitchell.
This hi/lo series will motivate reluctant readers with its amazing facts about the world's hugest structures. Each book takes readers behind the scenes of some of the tallest, longest, and biggest structures in the world and explains why they were built, who designed them, and what challenges had to be overcome in order to build them. Readers will learn about different types of construction techniques and will get a preview of even bigger structures currently in the planning or construction stage.

Are you ready to build your own bridge? The following books will help you get started.

Bridges! and Building Big
Bridges!: Amazing Structures to Design, Build & Test by Carol A. Johmann and Elizabeth J. Rieth.
Describes different kinds of bridges, their history, design, construction, and effects on populations, environmental dilemmas, safety, and more.

Building Big by David Macaulay.
Why this shape and not that? Why steel instead of concrete or stone? Why put it here and not over there? These are the kinds of questions that David Macaulay asks himself when he observes an architectural wonder. These questions take him back to the basic process of design from which all structures begin, from the realization of a need for the structure to the struggles of the engineers and designers to map out and create the final construction. As only he can, David Macaulay engages readers' imaginations and gets them thinking about structures they see and use every day -- bridges, tunnels, skyscrapers, domes, and dams. In Building Big he focuses on the connections between the planning and design problems and the solutions that are finally reached. Whether a structure is imposing or inspiring, he shows us that common sense and logic play just as important a part in architecture as imagination and technology do. As always, Macaulay inspires readers of all ages to look at their world in a new way.

You can also look at the bridge page of the Building Big website which has fabulous information, challenges and ideas.

Happy building!

-Briana C.

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